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A Finely Honed Talent for Self-Deception

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When Wanda first sees the new Avengers headquarters, it's under construction. One wing is draped in plastic; workmen and vehicles are coming and going.

She is given a room. There is simple furniture: a bed, a desk, a chair. It all smells sharp and new. The sheets are still in a plastic package.

There is a window. It looks down at the freshly seeded lawn.

She sits and looks down.

All along, there were choices. She looks back and at each turn in her life's winding path, she can see the other choices she might have made.

In most of those different futures, she and Pietro would have died together. She yearns for them with a terrible desperate ache, and hates herself for it.

***

Her new room has a bathroom. She drinks water from the tap and stays here for two days.

On the second day, someone knocks at the door. She is no longer sitting at the window; now she is lying on the mattress, staring at the ceiling. The sheets are still in their plastic packaging. She has not slept.

She ignores the knocking and eventually it goes away.

Time crawls; the shadows move on the ceiling.

The next time the knock comes, she ignores it again. This time, there's some rattling on the other side, and then the door opens.

Wanda thinks about all the other ways that could have gone, the other turns in the path she could have taken. She could have held the door shut. She could slam it, right now, on the person who is entering, hard enough to break bones. Hard enough to kill.

Maybe she should have.

"Hi there," says Tony Stark, weapons manufacturer and killer and hero and, for about half an hour, teammate. "Nice place. Very white. Very clean. Good housekeeping. I approve." He sits on the chair where she was sitting ... yesterday?

She waits for him to go away. She could make him go. Hurt him. Kill him, like the bombs he made killed her parents -- like the thing he made killed her brother.

"Are you hungry? Jarvis thought you might be hungry. No, wait -- forgot. Can't call him that anymore." He pauses, a shadow of apparently genuine grief passing across his expressive face. Then he brightens and opens a bag. "This is for you. I thought we could have lunch together. I've been wanting to talk to you anyway, but you wouldn't come out, so ..." He shrugs. "I had to come to you."

She ignores the wrapped sandwich he holds out. He puts it on the table, a bottle of soda next to it, and begins unwrapping his own.

"You want a candy bar, at least? The candy bar, I should say. I only brought one. Trying to cut back, eat healthier. Pepper insists. Have you met Pepper yet? She's my girlfriend. Nice lady. Very smart. You'd like her."

His face brightens when he talks about his girlfriend. It's so odd, watching him talk. There's so much emotion on his face, in his body, but she can't tell how much of it is genuine. Not many people can lie with their whole bodies. This man might.

She could find out, if she reaches out.

She doesn't.

"You know, everyone's been telling me for two days not to come down here," he says with his mouth full. "I think half of them were worried about me, and the other half worried about you. Or possibly both at once. I think they're afraid I'll push you over some kind of edge. You know what the weird thing is?" He pauses in mid-chew, then finishes his bite and swallows. "Or, do you know the weird thing already? I guess it depends on whether you can actually read minds. Are you reading my mind right now?"

He waits for a response, eyes bright, attention fixed on her, until she peels her dry tongue from the roof of her mouth and says, "No."

"Aha! She speaks!" Stark holds out the bottle of soda. "Here. Drink. It's not the diet crap that Pepper buys. This has more sugar than a Hershey's factory. It'll give you strength for dealing with me, which I understand is necessary."

She stares at him, her head turned sideways on the mattress, then cautiously wisps out a tendril of thought. It hurts too much before she can get a read on him, even enough to tell if he is trying to poison her. She lets her consciousness fall back into her own head, leaving a dry ache, and sits up slowly. What does it matter anyway? She could have crashed the helicarrier and killed everyone on it. She could crush his skull with a ceiling tile, or simply with a thought. She could crush her own skull just as easily.

The soda is cherry-flavored and very sweet. She drains the bottle.

"Sandwich?" Stark asks.

This time she takes it and tries a bite. It has cheese, limp lettuce, and some kind of over-processed, too-salty meat. Very American. Like him.

There was one thing she did manage to read in her brush across his mind. "You are afraid of me."

"Yes," Stark says immediately. "Wouldn't you be? I mean, really. Think about it."

He's right, of course. The only person who was never afraid of her is dead now. She puts the sandwich down.

"And there I go. Open mouth, insert foot. Nice one, Tony. A+ counseling effort. You'd think, as many therapists as I've been to, I'd be better at this. Not that any of them ever seemed to take. If you think I'm a terrible therapist, you should see me as a patient."

"I don't understand you," she says carefully.

"What, you mean -- my words?" He looks genuinely baffled this time. "I think I'm being ... well, reasonably coherent. J, am I --" He breaks off. The grief is sudden and sharp and very real, a pale echo of her own. He covers it quickly. "Anyway. What's not to understand? You read minds, right?"

How to answer that? Truth or ... what. She's not truly telepathic at the best of times; she can reach out, rearrange the furniture of people's minds, but what she gets in return is haphazard and hard to interpret. And right now, she is scraped out, hollow as a gourd, her mind's pale insides exposed and delicate.

She is too tired to lie.

"No," she says. "Not right now."

"Really?" He looks intrigued. "Why not? How does that work?"

"I don't know," she says, and there's a climbing anger, the first thing she's really felt since ... since. Since that. "I don't know. I don't know what I am or how I work. Did you find papers? Maybe there were papers in the lab that tell about me. They must have kept records. If you've read them, then you know more about me than I know about myself!"

"So," Stark says carefully, "that last part was in, well, Sokovian, probably. I think I got the gist, though, which I'm pretty sure comes down to, Tony, you are a shithead. I've heard that in just about every language you've ever heard of and probably some you haven't."

She still quivers with a strange hollow anger, her emotions drawn tight across the void inside her. She has to grope for English, the words coming awkwardly. "You took everything away from me."

"I know," Stark says. He's dead serious now, the flippancy vanished. He sets down his half-eaten sandwich beside hers. "I did that to a lot of people. You know that, right? What am I saying, of course you do. You know better than anyone."

Her own anger is given pause by the depth of his apparent self-loathing. It crawls in his voice, and she is intrigued by that, pulled a little out of herself. She sends a tendril of thought creeping toward him. She wants to feel what he is feeling, as if she might take some cold comfort from it. But she can't quite manage to get far enough, to reach beyond the barriers -- self-imposed or otherwise, she's not quite sure -- that have imprisoned her in her own skull since ...

Since.

"So yeah," Stark says, talking fast, words tumbling over each other. "As you know, Bob, I made weapons for a long time. Family business, right? Except that's not an excuse. You know, that's a lie I tell myself. I have a lot of those. That I didn't know, that it was only a job, that I wasn't the one who actually built the things, or I wasn't the one who dropped them. And then ... did you see the news about Johannesburg, by the way?"

His eyes are bright, like they're holding back tears. "No," she says. "What happened in Johannesburg?"

"Hulk happened," Stark says. "And I happened. Really, you didn't see that? Where were you? Torturing arms dealers, I suppose, or bumming around with Ultron. So, the deal is, people died, Wanda. Recently. Killed by me, when I couldn't get the Hulk out of there fast enough. Do you know how many?"

"No," she says again.

"Two hundred twenty-nine. And a half, since there's one lady who I guess is hanging on by a thread. Kid, really. She's nineteen. Got a husband and a baby. That's actually a pretty low death toll, all things considered, you know that? Hey, guess who everybody blames for it. That's the really funny part. You want to guess?"

Wanda shakes her head. She doesn't know what she's feeling now, or whose emotions they are, whose grief and rage.

"Hulk," Stark says. His voice drips anger like bile. "Bruce Banner. The gentlest guy I ever met. The one person in that whole fucking mess who didn't actually know what he was doing, couldn't make actual decisions about it. He's running now, running from that, running from all the people he's never met who hate him because of who he is. Running from the weight of two hundred and twenty-nine gravestones that shouldn't be on his conscience at all."

"I did that," she whispers. "Didn't I? Me. That was when I woke him up."

"Well," Stark says. "Yeah. Kinda."

"You fucker," she spits at him, curling in on herself. "Did you come here to throw that in my face?" The power curls like smoke along the edges of her consciousness, the first time she's felt even a little in control of it since -- since --

You can say his name. You owe him that, at least.

Since Pietro died.

"Okay, that was Sokovian again," Stark says. "Or something Eastern European, I presume. Lots of consonants. Once again, I get the gist. Me, shithead. Gotcha. And you're right. But look, see, Wanda ... if I can call you Wanda ..."

He leans forward in his chair -- her chair, technically -- and takes her hands. She's too startled to pull away, to lash out, to wrap around his skull and pull him out of his mind. If she can even do that anymore.

The only person who's held her hands since her parents died is Pietro. The last person to touch her was the android they call Vision, carrying her away from her own death, but before that, it was Pietro. Always Pietro.

Stark holds each of her hands in his slightly larger ones, with the palms turned up. Red light smokes gently in a little pool in each of her palms.

"That's cool," Stark says. "How do you do that?"

"I don't know." She realizes that she's not entirely sure what other people see when she uses her powers. Maybe it's the same. Maybe different. "I still don't understand you. Did you come here to -- to kill me? Or hoping I'd kill you?"

"If I wanted to kill you, I'd be wearing the armor."

He has not, she can't help noticing, answered the other question. She can feel the rising impulse, in her battered brain, to skate around the surface of his mind. Pietro would have told her not to, that reading people's minds without their permission is wrong. But Pietro was always better than her.

"You made the machine that killed my brother," she says. His hands tighten on hers, a short convulsive clasp. "But ..." The tears startle her, welling up from someplace inside her that she thought was long dry. "I gave you the push to do it. You would never have done it if not for me."

"No, now, wait." He looks like she caught him off guard. "Okay, yes, having you run around in my brain isn't my idea of a good time, but hang around this place long enough and you'll figure out that Tony Stark doing stupid things is the regularly scheduled entertainment on days ending in 'Y'. Really, you do need to meet Pepper. Uh ... this isn't -- are you okay? Good going, Tony, you've still got the touch --"

She's crying for real now, sobs tearing up from a place deep inside her. She didn't think she could still do this, thought whatever part of her could feel this deeply had been burned out of her long ago in pain and chemicals.

"I killed him," she manages to say. "I killed Pietro."

"Oh, now, wait. That's not actually where I was going with that at all. That's -- God, don't -- Pepper and Rhodey and Hill are all going to get together and kill me for this --"

She's not sure which of them initiates it; all she knows is they're both equally bad at it -- his arms around her, stiff like he doesn't know how to hold, and her face pressed into his chest, her whole body rigid because she doesn't know how to be held.

But it's one of those things that gets a little easier with practice, because she loses a little bit of time and comes back and she's not really crying anymore, not like she was, and she's kind of melted against him. Everything hurts, inside and out. Crying is awful and she wishes she hadn't remembered how to do it. Stark is rubbing a tentative hand up and down her spine.

"The thing is," he's saying, and his voice vibrates through his chest, against her ear. "The thing is, when you start blaming other people for things, if you follow it down, it all ends up coming back to you. And, it works the other way, too -- sit around marinating in your own guilt for too long, and eventually you realize you have to condemn other people along with yourself, and that's a pretty shitty feeling, all things considered." He laughs a little. "That's kind of wise. Almost. Deep thoughts, by Anthony Stark. Which means, as a life philosophy, it's probably flawed."

"Does anything make this go away?" she asks into his chest. There's rigid scar tissue under her cheek. She can feel it through the light material of his long-sleeved T-shirt.

"Oh, believe me, I've tried all the usual things. Liquor in large quantities. Hookers and blow. And various other controlled substances."

She sniffles. "Did it help?"

"You know," Stark says musingly, "as much as I probably shouldn't be saying this to someone who can't be more than ... what, twenty-one, twenty-two? .... Yeah, anyway, everyone who tells you self-medicating doesn't work is actually lying. People wouldn't do it if it didn't give you some kind of relief. Temporary, fucked-up relief, but any port in a storm, you know? Even if it's only because you feel too shitty to still feel shitty about the thing that made you drink in the first place."

She pushes away, and scrubs uselessly at her face with one hand. There's a dark, damp patch on the front of his T-shirt. Still looking a little awkward about the whole thing, he gives her a handful of napkins from the lunch bag, and she blows her nose. Stark, somewhat surreptitiously, blows his nose too. She chooses not to notice that his eyes are wet.

"I would like to get drunk," she says. Her voice is thick and choked, like she has a cold. "Very drunk. Where can I find alcohol?"

"On a military base? Or what passes for one, anyway? Just flag down your nearest SHIELD ensign. Or, god help us all, ask Thor."

"I'm not leaving my room," she says. "Bring it to me or I will get inside your head and make you."

To her hazy disbelief, the threat doesn't rock him, even though she is quite serious. Instead he says, "Make you a deal. Eat your sandwich and your candy bar, and I'll bring you a bottle of 180-proof vodka so you can spend the night getting intimately acquainted with your shiny new SHIELD-issue bathroom."

"You are so unbelievably strange," she says, in her own language on purpose this time. And she takes a bite of the sandwich. It's still terrible.

"It's rude to say things in languages that other people can't understand."

"Then learn to speak it," she says in English, "instead of being a useless monolingual American."

"I'll have you know I can say 'Are you single?' and 'Your place or mine?' in at least a dozen languages. Probably more."

"Your girlfriend is a saint."

"Not gonna argue with you," Stark says. "Saint Pepper of Potts, patron saint of hopeless causes, power lunches, and five-inch heels."

Wanda wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and stubbornly, obstinately takes another bite. Her body doesn't want it. She doesn't care.

Stark stays with her while she chokes down the sandwich and the candy bar and even while she drinks his bottle of soda, which is grape flavored. He is looking out the window at the construction workers when she says suddenly, "I don't know what to call you."

"Iron Man, Tony, Love Stallion, it's all good."

She reaches out carefully, tentatively. He feels weird around the edges, a sort of bright, effervescent happiness with its blood drawn on dark spikes. Reaching out still hurts. She is still scraped raw on the inside, cored out by Pietro's death, and she's not sure if it actually is easier to use her powers now, or if she simply cares less about making herself hurt.

"Are you reading my mind?" Stark asks suspiciously.

"I am feeling your mind," she corrects him. "I can't tell what's inside. You have a very bright mind."

"So I kept telling my advisor at MIT."

It is so tempting to keep going. To just feel a little farther, to brush the edges of something deeper. She's not a true telepath, just a nailed-together approximation of one, but she's starting to appreciate how difficult it might be to spend a lot of time around non-telepaths. How much trust it must take for them to believe that she isn't looking where she shouldn't.

"I've given you a lot of emotional honesty today," Stark says. "Grant me the courtesy of letting me choose what to tell you, rather than strip-mining it out of my brain. For your own mental health if nothing else, because trust me, it's a shitstorm in there."

"Okay," she says equitably. "If you tell me one thing honestly. Why did you come here today?"

He tilts his head to the side, looking at her with those bright, intelligent eyes. "Because I hurt you in a way I can never make up for, and I'm sorry."

That might be a lie, she tells herself to cover the sharp pain under her ribs. It might be, but it's not. And she knows it's not, even without peeking inside.

"Bring me vodka," she says, "and I might forgive you."

Her teeth snap shut on the words, too late. It's mocking. It's not meant to mean anything. He seems oddly unfazed by it, in either a positive or a negative way.

"If I get you drunk, are you likely to blow anything up? Like my head, or this base, say? Because a number of people would probably have issues with that. The latter more than the former."

"No," she says, not sure if it's true. She will simply have to find out.

"Right. Vodka. Oh, hey. One other thing." He takes a paperback book out of the bottom of the bag and tosses it onto the table. "You're not a prisoner, you know. And all these rooms are eventually going to be equipped with state of the art touchscreens and so forth. Which have not been installed yet, because government contractors. So I figured you'd be crawling the walls by now."

And he leaves before she can say anything.

Wanda picks up the book after he's long gone. It is in English, a paperback with a badly foxed cover and a confusing illustration. The title is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. She's never heard of it.

She opens it cautiously to the title page, where she finds Property of T. Stark scribbled in sloppy, very faded handwriting.

Experimentally, and mostly because she is afraid he will ask her questions when he comes back, she reads some pages. If this is English literature, then she prefers the literature of her country. This is very strange and confusing and generally terrible.

She settles back on the bare mattress, head propped against the wall, and reads some more.